March 3, 2009
The Bethnal Green disaster was one of a number of tragedies at London underground stations during World War II.
Balham underground station in Wandsworth, south London was the site of a catastrophic bombing during October 1940.
A fragmentation bomb exploded at street level creating a large crater which a bus subsequently drove into, penetrating a water pipe. Water and debris flooded into the station causing the deaths of 111 people and numerous injuries.
The attack, which has since been portrayed in popular culture, such as in the 2007 film ‘Atonement’, was one of several fatal disasters during the air raids of the World War II.
The deep level of underground stations created ideal refuge for the thousands of Londoners who sought shelter during attacks by German aircraft. While regarded as safe, several incidents resulted in civilian casualties.
One of the most damaging attacks was on Bank station in January 1941. A bomb directly impacted upon the the ticket stall of the underground station, taking the lives of 56 people, injuring 69 and causing considerable damage to the building. The station was forced to close for two months and a bridge implemented over the crater to allow traffic onto the roads.
Some 20 civilians were also killed by a bomb blast while taking shelter in Marble Arch station in September 1940.
The Bethnal Green tube disaster followed in 1943 where 173 were killed as the result of mass panic.
By Sam Gournay
For WNOL’s photo slideshow of the Bethnal Green memorial service, click here.
March 3, 2009
Harry Paticas is a young architect with a practice based just up the road from Bethnal Green tube station. He has lost count of the times he has jumped on a train at the station but estimates it took about six months of running up and down the stairs before he even noticed the small plaque placed there to commemorate the victims of the 1943 tragedy.
Struck by the plaque’s modest nature and the large number of people who died – 173 – Harry searched the station, convinced there must be another, more imposing memorial somewhere on the premises. Having found no other trace or whisper of the disaster he began to imagine how it could be commemorated in a more suitable way.
Speaking after last Sunday’s memorial service Harry said: “I kept imagining so many people trapped in what was a very small space. Then I actually had a eureka moment and hit on the idea of casting the space. Casting lets you frame a particular space; it gives it boundaries and an actual visible form and shape.”
Harry sent a photomontage of his idea to a local paper. A creative sub decided it was worth a few inches of column space and came up with the title ‘stairway to heaven’ to describe Harry’s design. The name struck a chord and became, if not history then perhaps at least history in the making.
At this point Harry had still never met anyone with a direct connection to the 1943 disaster, but that was all about to change.
50 years of waiting
Alf Morris, who as a child of 13, was pulled out of the crush on the stairway wrote to the paper, trying to find out more about Harry’s proposal.
Harry took up Alf’s story. He said: “I managed to decipher Alf’s phone number on a fax the paper sent me. I gave him a call and he asked me to visit him. When I arrived at Alf’s home he opened the door and said ‘I’ve waited 50 years for someone like you to come along.’”
Now nearly three years after Harry and Alf first met, the proposed memorial has evolved from that first ‘eureka moment’ into something more specific, at least on paper and in people’s imaginations.
Rising from a concrete base the inverted stairway will be a hollow bronze shell, pierced by 173 holes, one for each person who died. The holes will admit pinpoints of light which will move and become more or less bright, depending on the weather and the sun’s position. Harry sees this movement of light giving the memorial a dynamic, living quality.
Interaction with the natural environment is a motif that recurs in many of Harry’s projects. His Cranbrook Lunar Lighthouse proposal involves illuminating the cornices at the top of six tower blocks on the Cranbrook estate in Bethnal Green. The multi-coloured lights will vary in intensity as they track the waxing and waning of the moon.
Perhaps Harry’s most distinctive creation so far is the Pachamama toilet premiered at last year’s London Festival of Architecture. The Pachamama is a waterless earth and fabric affair, devised after Harry spent three weeks in a shanty town in Lima, Peru. There can’t be many other elegant, architectural constructions based on “an in-depth study of the excreta practice of the Quechua Indians”.
Harry describes himself as a ‘Jack of all trades’ but whether he is designing light shows or toilets he is never short of imagination or inspiration. The moment he paused on the stairs of Bethnal Green tube station and began to realise the scale of the disaster that happened there might just produce one of his most memorable creations yet.
Story by Brigitte Istim
Do you think this memorial is a good idea? Do any of your family remember the tragedy? Send us your comments.
March 3, 2009
The Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust has raised at least £70, 000 but £650, 000 is needed.
On 3rd March 1943, 300 people were crushed in the stairwell of Bethnal Green tube station when anti-aircraft guns were fired nearby. People entering the tube panicked thinking the guns were enemy bombs.
Some 173 men, women and children died and more than 90 were injured.
Survivor Alf Morris read out the names of those killed at a memorial service last Sunday in Bethnal Green, East London.
Wreaths and flowers were laid near the stairs by survivors and families of the dead.
The service which took place at 2.30pm in St John on Bethnal Green was led by the five members of a Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust of which Alf Morris, 78, is chairman.
Alf and his colleagues have worked constantly for two years since founding the trust. The money raised has been for the building of a memorial in the park beside the tube.
“It was a tragedy,” said Alf. “It rocked the East End. These people shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Secretary of Stairway to Heaven, Sandra Scotting, lost her grandmother and cousin. Her work means a lot to her because her family were involved.
“My mother was a survivor,” said Sandra. “She lay down every night of her life and heard the screams and the cries. I didn’t realise how painful it was until the 50th anniversary when we started talking about it. I owe it to all my family.”
Sandra’s mother Ivy Brind died recently.
“If she was alive she would have been the first person here,” said Sandra. “It’s important for all of us and all these survivors.”
Margaret Ridgway - now McKay - was the youngest survivor at six months and two weeks. Her mother Ellen Ridgway died that night but saved Margaret by passing her to another woman.
Margaret only heard about the plans to build the memorial last year. Now she does what she can to tell people about what happened including an upcoming TV show on the BBC.
She thinks funds will be raised quicker if more people know about the disaster.
June Brookes whose family lived in Bethnal Green says the government hushed up the tragedy so the Germans did not find out. She believes the government owes the dead and their families the money to build the memorial.
Whole familes were wiped out. But there are about 80 people who died whose family have never been traced. June is helping to find them.
The Pearly Kings and Queens of the boroughs of London in their pearl-encrusted suits lined the church front pews at the memorial service.
“These people were innocent people,” said Pat Jolly, the Chairman of the Pearly Kings and Queens whose distant relative was killed. “It was a tragedy and we must never forget it.”
Firefighters Craig Edwards and Pav Singh from Bethnal Green Fire Station, attended the service and stayed for the after-service buffet. They can only imagine the scene on the stairwell and how difficult the rescue attempts must have been.
They were at the King’s Cross fire in 1987 which killed 31 people and the Clapham Junction Rail Disaster in 1988 when 35 people died and more than 100 were injured.
On sale at the memorial was a CD of a song about the tragedy written by a young local band. Proceeds will go to the memorial fund.
Other planned fundraising events include a Mother’s Day Film Show in Bethnal Green and a collection day at Victoria station on St George’s Day.
For more information about the Trust and their upcoming fundraising events visit http://www.stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org/
Story by Marianne Halavage
To see WNOL’s photo slideshow of the Bethnal Green memorial service, click here.
March 3, 2009
Alf Morris’s fighting spirit is intact - though his hearing is not what it used to be.
Over a bacon sandwich in Nico’s cafe on Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, he shouts: “Everyone’s got sympathy. You’ve got sympathy. He’s got sympathy. He’s got sympathy.” He points at the East London local men dotted around the cafe.
“But no one comes up with that.” He rubs his fingers. “And they’ve got the money. But no we mustn’t say nothing. Well, I ain’t mincing my words.”
Alf is wearing a luminous yellow “survivor” waistcoat.
Worst civilian disaster
He is trying to raise money for a memorial for the victims of “the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War,” according to the Trust of which Alf is chairman.
Some 300 people were crushed into the stairwell of Bethnal Green tube station and 173 men, women and children died. Over 90 were injured.
In the two years since it has been running, the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust has raised £70,000. It needs £650,000 to build the memorial.
Alf estimates he is one of around 6 to 10 survivors left.
“The rest of them have all died,” says Alf. “This is what the government wants. When we’re all dead and gone we’re ‘istory books.
“They don’t like me because I’m the one that survived it and know what happened. I know some of the mistakes that they made.”
During the war Bethnal Green tube was used as a shelter for locals from enemy bombs.
Alf finishes his sandwich and wipes his mouth with a white cotton handkerchief.
“Right. This is what happened. On the night of the 3rd of March 1943,” he begins.
That night the radio went dead. There was about to be an enemy air raid. Alf, aged 13, and his mother’s sister Lillian Hall began walking to the shelter. His father and mother would follow with Alf’s four-week-old sister.
The sirens started as they were a little way up Old Ford Road. As the antenna on the search light in Bethnal Green Gardens came out they started running.
Once the antenna found an enemy plane the guns would start firing. The shrapnel fallout was dangerous.
“Catch a lump of that and it would kill you,” Alf says. They ran down Victoria Park Street and across the road to the tube. The entrance was small with a 25 watt bulb illuminating it. The stairs were slippery.
He adds: “We got to the middle of the staircase and all of a sudden they fired the rockets in Victoria Park.”
Two buses of people taking shelter had just arrived. The people thought the rocket fire were bombs.
“They all shouted ‘bomb bomb get down get down’ and with that the people that was on the staircase was pushed – down,” he says.
“I got pushed over. I felt myself being carried. I got to the third stair from the bottom and I was pushed again. There were bodies, bodies of children and grown ups. And I was screaming and crying. It was horrible, terrible. I went to move and I couldn’t move.”
At the bottom of the staircase, Mrs Chumley an air raid warden, grabbed Alf’s arms and yanked him out.
“She put me down on the staircase on the landing and said to me ‘You, you go down the stairs and you say nothing about what’s happened. Nothing. Nothing,’” Alf remembers.
Alf says he walked down the motionless escalators and turned right at the bottom to face the big steal entrance. He rang the bell and the door opened.
“They could see I was crying and my legs were grazed. I just walked on and walked down to where our bunk was and sat on the bunk crying,” he says.
“And there were men and ladies and that and they said ‘Alfie what’s the matter?’And I didn’t say nothing. She said ‘don’t say nothing’. About 20 minutes later my aunt came along with no shoes and she was black and blue and had lost her coat.”
Alf thinks the 1500 people in the shelter that night knew something had happened. But the extent of the loss of life did not become clear until the next day.
At half past six the next morning the stairs were still wet. Attempts had been made to revive people by throwing containers of water on them. On the side of the staircase there was a pile of shoes.
Vera Trotter used to come to Alf’s house about quarter to nine and they would walk to school together.
“She didn’t turn up,” Alf said. “When I went to school, children weren’t there. The little boy beside me wasn’t there.
“When my dad come home from work he said ‘Where’s Vera?’ Vera wasn’t there. He said ‘Where’s her mother?’ She wasn’t there.”
Alf’s dad, a level-headed man, walked around the local hospitals in search of Vera.
“He come back about half past nine. It gets to me sometimes,” Alf pulls out his handkerchief and wipes his eyes. “He said to my mother, ‘I found Vera.’”
They only knew it was Vera because Alf’s dad had removed a nail from her shoe. Alf said: ”They couldn’t recognise her. She was black and blue. And that was like the lot of them. Unrecognisable.
“It’s the only time in the whole of the war I’ve ever seen my dad cry.
“Over the next fortnight there were possibly 15 funerals a day round here. Terrible. Terrible.”
A week later London transport closed the tube and built an extended entrance. Alf thinks the tragedy would never have happened had this been done earlier.
“It wasn’t an accident. It was a military blunder with civilian casualties. Them guns was put in the wrong place and they fired them and that’s it,” he adds.
“And that is why this has been swept under the carpet for 60 years. It’s because it’s an embarrassment to the local council. And it’s an embarrassment to London and to London transport. And you can quote me on that.”
Alf worked as a scrap merchant for 30 years, but now spends his days raising money for the memorial.
Last November he organised a dance night with the help of his childhood sweetheart who he has been married to for 53 years.
The event at Hornchurch Conservative Club raised £865. Alf moved to Hornchurch near Romford 10 years ago after living in Bethnal Green for 65 years. He is now looking for a bigger venue to organise a similar event this summer.
He turns 79 on March 15 and thinks he was saved for his work to keep the people who died remembered.
“It was a tragedy. It rocked the East End,” he says.
“These people shouldn’t be forgotten.”
By Marianne Halavage